The French Dispatch

Bill Murray as the editor of the Dispatch

A middle finger to the haters, The French Dispatch finds an unrepentant Wes Anderson doubling down on the whimsy and pastiche of films like The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There’s more. An artist’s statement, done early on in Owen Wilson’s laconic voiceover, vouchsafes that “All grand beauties withhold their deepest secrets.” Secrets? Deepest? Anderson is all surface, surely?

Anyhow, on to the Dispatch, which is an American magazine/supplement of New Yorker stripe run in the old way – a liberal institution headed by a steely eccentric (played by Bill Murray), never short of money and with enough space to contain at least one writer who doesn’t write, enough time on its hands to worry excessively about dangling participles and house style. People have expense accounts. The assignments are exotic. It’s fun. People are dying to work there. This is an indeterminate French city called Ennui-sur-Blasé, but is essentially mid-century Paris by way of Clochemerle, as depicted in Gabriel Chevallier’s sweetly satirical novel of sleepy, petty French France.

And from here, framing device established, Anderson gives us three separate stories, each fronted by a different writer. In the first Tilda Swinton gives us another of her big-teethed, big-haired eccentrics, relating the story of a jailbird (Benicio Del Toro) who becomes a great artist thanks to his muse, who’s also his jailer (Léa Seydoux), and a conman gallerist (Adrien Brody, best thing in the whole film). In the second Frances McDormand plays the writer of a piece about how she befriended and bedded a student radical (Timothée Chalamet) in an Andersonian version of 1968 Paris, before he ran off with a woman closer to his own age (Lyna Khoudri). And in the third Liev Schreiber plays a TV host talking a story out of a celebrated journalist (Jeffrey Wright) about how a chef of the molecular gastronomy school (Steve Park) – he’s called Nescaffier, which is the film’s only really good joke – thwarted a kidnapping.

The artist and his muse/jailer
The artist and his muse/jailer

It’s arch, all of it. At this point in Anderson’s career that kind of goes without saying. But the level of pastiche is what’s really remarkable, and the fact that Anderson never, ever stops laying it on. In one micro-scene that’s emblematic of the whole thing, he fast-cuts between various recipients of a radio broadcast, each one of them listening to it on a different mid-century transistor radio straight from kitsch corner. Inside each doll another doll, fractalling away in a pastiche universe stretching off to the limits of time.

Shot in that dead flat, absolutely shadowless way by Robert Yeoman, who’s been with Anderson ever since his debut, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, the effect is Carl Theodor Dreyer meets a mid-century-modern furniture catalogue, every single aspect considered, every item teased and tweezed. Everything just so.

As with the films of Peter Greenaway, there’s an obsession with symmetry and a tendency for the elaborate production design (by Adam Stockhausen) to become the star of the show. The frame outshines the painting it contains. The “movie” stops moving.

If there are “deepest secrets” then it’s Anderson’s abiding love of the mid 20th century. When the US venerated French culture, and Ernest Hemingway might be found drinking with Lee Miller in the Café de Flore. It’s the era of the triumph of democracy, of pop culture, New Journalism, continental philosophy and the European arthouse movie. Boomers might recognise themselves.

The cameos are fun – Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Christoph Waltz, Mathieu Amalric, Cécile de France, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, some on screen for mere seconds.

To reach for another comparison, it’s Jacques Tati without the jokes and if, like me, you’re not a Tati fan, it’s a slog to watch. 45 minutes from the end I was wondering if the dry-humping of the picturesque past was ever going to stop. I was never entirely sure if it was meant to be an entertaining whole, or just a series of brilliantly executed “sketches”? Like a dinner of exquisite individual courses that never really hangs together as a whole, The French Dispatch is easier to admire than to enjoy.

The French Dispatch – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

No Time to Die

Lashana Lynch and Daniel Craig

A remembrance of Bonds past, No Time to Die is an evocative, elegiac farewell to Daniel Craig which also feels like a goodbye to the entire franchise – the familiar “James Bond will return” is there after the end credits, in case you need reassuring.

It covers a lot of ground, flicks a lot of synapses not normally flicked by a Bond movie and is fascinating from first to last. All of the Craig Bond movies have played about with the Bond formula one way or another, but No Time to Die seems to have gone one step further, as if it wants to run two Bond movies in parallel – the one we expect and a divergent one imagining what might have been for Bond had he got married and had a family.

Plot traditionalists, Bond groupies, don’t worry, it’s the usual. Bond is retired but is pulled back into play when a megalomaniac mastermind gets his hands on some nanobot technology which, in the wrong hands – and his are the wrong hands – spell death on a global scale. Cue exotic locations, chases by car, bike and chopper, explosions, tuxedos and martinis shaken not stirred, the Aston Martin, unwholesome chaps with thick foreign accents and mannered speech patterns, many attractive women, a couple of near-miss escapes all before the big finale in the sort of bunker-style lair that Bond villains favour.

And yet. Parallels, doubling and a “shadow Bond” narrative is in play from the outset. The pre-credits sequence which usually features Bond in a fix actually features Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) as a child being menaced and eventually saved by Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), the man who has just killed her mother. We cut to years later – Swann and Bond married and happy, and we remember, because Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack references All the Time in the World, theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that Bond was married once before… and that it didn’t last long.

And then, 25 minutes in, a second set of opening credits, this time with the Billy Eilish song – “Fool me once, fool me twice/Are you death or paradise?” – and the sense that we are being played with increases. There are two villains – Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and Safin. There are two 007’s – Nomi (Lashana Lynch, a black woman, just to goad those on woke-watch) has taken on the double-O since Bond’s retirement. But there are also two Bonds – the familiar assassin doing it all for queen and country and a touchie-feelie Bond who takes death personally, actually has friendships with people and at one point is seen carrying a child. When this Bond gets shot, he bleeds.

Bond in his Aston Martin
Aston Martin time for Bond

The alternate James Bond timeline sketched out and then erased in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is redrawn. We see the Bond we’re familiar with refracted through the Bond that might have been. The family man, lover and friend. Some people have even suggested that all this exhumation of the past is Proustian – there’s a key character in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu called Swann. Its narrator’s reveries were triggered by a madeleine. Bond is married to… Madeleine Swann. There’s an interesting collision of chatroom cultures right there.

The Proust stuff is probably a bit esoteric for some, and there is some collateral damage caused by all this backward-looking and shadowplay. There’s not an awful lot of action, for one, and rather a lot of shots of Craig pucker-lipped and wracked by emotion (the moue being to Daniel Craig what the eyebrow was to Roger Moore). Doubtless this is why Phoebe Waller-Bridge was drafted in, to add a bit of acid to the script by stalwarts Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, who wrote along with director Cary Fukunaga. Bond, meeting M (Ralph Fiennes) for the first time since he retired, quips: “Has this desk got bigger… or have you got smaller?” It’s one of hers, surely?

More grist for the woke-watch mill – Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is more than just a secretary (just about), the “Bond girls” (a term that’s been retired) are all now highly competent operatives in their own right, not just bedwarmers, and Q (Ben Whishaw) is openly gay (so it stood for Queer all along).

Hans Zimmer plays a blinder with a score that ties it all together, the past and the present, the action and the inaction, the joyous and the tragic, but steps graciously back to let the film play out with a song we all know. Whether you like the film or not, you’ll probably get a bit teary. If this was the end of Bond, rather than just Daniel Craig, it would be a hell of a way to go.

No Time to Die – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021